Members of the Back Bay community filled the Boston Planning and Development Agency Board Room at City Hall on Sept. 12 to hear architect Guy Grassi present his 45-minute proposal for the restoration of the Algonquin Club.
For over 130 years, the building at 217 Commonwealth Ave.has served as a private social club and has become a fixture in the Back Bay. However, the building is “in need of tremendous amounts of restoration,” Grassi said at the Back Bay Architectural Commission hearing. He said that there is a lot of fractured brick and brickwork that needs to be done, and the asbestos slate work is falling apart and needs replacement. Grassi said that there is “nothing worth saving” on the rear windows, and that the wooden frames and sashes need to be replaced. In the front, he said that they will be keeping the frames but replacing the windows.
Grassi said that this is primarily a restoration of the front elevation and includes the restoration of all of the landscape work. The proposal also includes creating handicapped access by creating a slightly pitched entry for wheelchair access.
There will also be a sunken-roof terrace for three guest rooms across the front, as well as solar panels lying flat on the roof. Grassi said these have been mocked up, and are not visible. Grassi also said that this is not a typical townhouse, as the proportions are much larger. The building is an “unusual building with an unusual size,” at 80 feet wide, and it also qualifies as a highrise, he said.
The piece that concerned many community members was the proposed roof deck, which Grassi said cannot be seen anywhere from the ground. The maximum number of people allowed on the deck by the zoning code is 65.
“The deck itself is in the center of the building; we did that intentionally to keep the deck as far away from neighbors as we could get it both from the rear and the front and just for visibility purposes as well,” Grassi said.
He said that the biggest concern about the deck was noise. He said they have been working with abutters as well as members of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay on solutions to this issue.
He said that what has been come up with so far was to enclose the entire roof-deck with a 3-foot high copper clad low wall and then another 31/2- or 4-foot-high glass wall around the whole thing. He said on the deck side, the wall would be 7-feet high, but because it’s sunken down into the roof line, it won’t be 7 feet above the roof.
However, there is a portion—about a 11/2 feet— of the glass wall that is visible from the far side of the Commonwealth Mall. Grassi said that this “little section of visibility” from this distance away and the fact that it is clear glass will make it very difficult for anyone to see.
“This is a great project,” said Joe Cornish, director of design review for the Boston Landmarks Commission. But he told Grassi that he thinks that when looking at the mockups, “you want to make sure that what’s happening on the roof is as minimal as possible.”
Several community members spoke out in support of the project as presented, saying that these improvements are much needed for such an important building in the neighborhood and would benefit the community.
Back Bay Architectural Commission Chair Kathleen Connor read many letters from the public into the record, all in support of the project.
“Personally on the whole we’re in favor of the project; we think the building does deserve to receive the kind of treatment that it’s going to get and on the whole we are supportive of the project,” said Chip Gagnier, a resident of 215 Commonwealth Ave. However, he said he does have concerns about height and the level of activity during the construction period and intends to negotiate a construction mitigation agreement with the developer. Gagnier also said that he is “continuing to negotiate with the developer” in terms of the neighbor agreement Grassi had previously mentioned.
A resident from 192 Commonwealth Ave. said that she “fully” supports this and thinks it’s a “terrific addition to the neighborhood,” and that the roof-deck “would be wonderful for the members of the club.”
Not everyone agreed, however. Vicki Smith, president of NABB, said that though she has been speaking with the proponents of the project since May, they have no good neighbor agreement and are particularly frustrated about the roof deck. She said they received 100 letters against this proposal. Smith also said that there is “a very conflicting acoustical study” which does not confirm that the glass would be able to mitigate the noise level. She thinks this proposal has “divided the neighborhood in a very unfortunate way.”
“We strongly object to certain things; primarily the roof-deck,” said Sue Prindle from NABB. She said she is opposed to the glass wall, and that this proposal violates the criteria of the Commission. She said the roof-deck railing should be ornamental iron, and also said that the proposed mechanical screenings are visible from the Mall towards Fairfield Street and from both directions in the alley.
A resident from Beacon Street said she was three to represent the non-abutters who are “at risk” if this is approved. She said that the roof deck “belongs on Newbury Street or Boylston Street, not on the extension of Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace,” and said it would be a “terrible precedent” if it were allowed.
Another resident who lives three doors down said that she thinks the project is “excellent” and that she doesn’t think she’ll be able to hear anything from the roof deck.
“It’s a very complicated neighborhood, but it’s a very special neighborhood,” said Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association. “I think that it is critical that this project get approved as-is,” she told the Commission.
“This is an important decision and everything has to be considered,” said Connor. “We are very fortunate that this is being presented…it’s a privilege to be able to discuss it.”
After hearing all of the public comment both for and against the proposal as presented and asking their own questions, the Commission voted unanimously to approve everything in the plan as presented with the exception of the roof deck and the issues concerning the glass that was visible, as well as anything else that may be visible on the roof and terraces. Grassi will come back and present the roof top and mechanical equipment in a different manner.